Thursday, January 9, 2014

Symphony at an Exhibition, Part 1

Maestro Ponti (center, wearing glasses) with VAC artists
 As everyone who reads this blog knows, one of the reasons I love living in Southwest Florida is the quality of the arts scene.  Having the chance to get to know some of our community's incredibly talented people -- whether they're visual artists, musicians, or actors -- makes it all the more fun.    The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra is performing this week-end, with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition on the program.  Maestro Raffaele Ponti and CSO Chairman Ken Barber reached out to the Visual Arts Center to put together an exhibition of art work in connection with the concert, and I ended up as the coordinator of the event.  It has truly been the most exciting project I've ever worked on.  There's so much about the event that I want to share, but I'll start with a version of the article about the collaboration that I wrote for the January 3rd edition of Florida Weekly.   

CSO’s ‘Exhilarating’ concert blends orchestral music with fine art
By Nanette Crist, Florida Weekly Correspondent

As its concert title indicates, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s Jan. 12 concert promises to be “exhilarating” with its celebration of the relationship between symphonic music and other art forms.   “Literature, art, and music have influenced and catapulted each other throughout history,” says CSO Maestro Raffaele Ponti.  Mr. Ponti selected the evening’s music – Profokiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ – with this interrelationship in mind.   The pieces then fell into place for a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the CSO and Punta Gorda’s Visual Arts Center that will add an exciting visual dimension to concertgoers’ experience.   

‘Symphony at an Exhibition’
Mussorgsky was inspired to compose “Pictures at an Exhibition” by an exhibit of ten drawings and watercolors created by his friend Viktor Hartmann.   Mussorgsky translated Hartmann’s artwork into a ten movement composition that he envisioned as a musical tour through an art exhibit.  Ten artists from the Visual Arts Center have, in turn, created an exhibit of works of art inspired by the respective movements of “Pictures at an Exhibition” that will be on display at the concert. The collaboration is the consummate example of the way in which different art forms can build on one another and provide a sometimes unexpected creative spark.  

Roxie Vetter's Mussorgsky #4
For Roxie Vetter, who typically listens to rock and roll when she paints, using classical music for inspiration was an interesting challenge.  Vetter’s mixed media work interprets the fourth movement, ‘Polish Cart.’  Vetter says that her work incorporates both the heaviness of the music as the oxen struggle with their burden and the sense of jubilation as they reach their destination.   

Concertgoers will have the opportunity to talk firsthand with participating artists both before the performance and during intermission about the experience of creating art in response to specific music.  In addition, some of the artists will talk with Charlie Noble about their vision and creative process in the pre-concert talk. (The artists will also participate in Mr. Ponti’s “Beyond the Notes” presentation at FGCU’s Renaissance Academy on Jan. 9.)   The exhibit will move to the CSO’s offices following the concert.  

From piano to orchestra
Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which was written for piano, has inspired more than 25 composers to create orchestral arrangements of the work. Maurice Ravel’s 1922 arrangement is most often performed, and is the version that will be played by the CSO.

When composing “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Mussorgsky eschewed the typical symphonic form with multiple movements that have a unifying theme. Each movements is as varied as the work of art that inspired it, and the CSO will have to change style, sound and mood “on a dime.”   The challenge is enhanced by the fact that none of the movements — other than the final “Bogatyr Gates”—is longer than three minutes. This means that the musicians will barely have time to transition to Mussorgsky’s approach in one movement before moving on to the next. 

The work begins with a promenade representing a patron walking into a gallery and to the first painting in an exhibit. The early movements of the piece are separated by additional promenades as the viewer strolls between works of art. (The Maestro compares these interludes to a sorbet cleansing the audience’s palate in anticipation of what’s to come.) Later movements are divided only by a moment of silence, which Mr. Ponti analogizes to the blank space between paintings in a gallery or museum. 

Thelma Daida's Ode to a Troubadour
The first movement, “Gnomus,” was inspired by Hartmann’s sketch of a clumsy little gnome running. Ravel’s use of tuba and percussion creates a sense of drama, and the audience can clearly hear the gnome being slapped in the face for overstepping his boundaries. Next comes “The Old Castle,” based on a watercolor painting of a troubadour singing in front of a medieval castle. Historically, troubadours were associated with folk songs. Ravel’s choice of a saxophone to represent the singer in this movement, while an unusual instrument for an orchestral work, is consistent with Russian folk music at the time. 

Sue Krasny's Nature's Grand Finale
And so the piece flows from movement to movement – from painting to painting—each with its own distinctive style, until we arrive at the Bogatyr Gates, or the Great Gate of Kiev. The feeling is one of triumph, as the trumpets and cymbals signal the victory of Tsar Alexander II in his escape from an assassination attempt.  A sense of triumph will undoubtedly be felt throughout the concert hall as the music draws to a close. 

 ‘Romeo and Juliet’ inspires through the ages
Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a prime example of the way in which literature can inspire the creative process.  Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers has borne countless productions of plays, films, operas, ballets, and, of course, music. Mr. Ponti and the CSO will join this rich tradition with their performance of Profokiev’s “Romeo and Juliet, Suite No. 2.” 

Commissioned by the Kirov Ballet, Profokiev composed this score in 1935. (The Bolshoi Ballet originally hired Profokiev for this purpose, but declared the work—which inexplicably had a happy ending-- “undanceable.”) Three suites of music were created from the 52 movements in the ballet’s score.  Maestro Ponti has selected Suite No. 2 for the CSO's performance, a seven-movement work that begins with the drama and struggle of the Montagues and the Capulets and ends with the sorrow of Romeo at Juliet's grave.

To Mr. Ponti, the first 16 measures of Suite No. 2 capture “the beauty of love within the clash of what we know is going to happen.” The suite starts quietly, but by the third measure, the listener hears thunderous musical discord that represents the rivalry between the families. Just two measures later, the strings begin to play, with their beautiful sound symbolizing the feelings of the young lovers.

The Maestro shared that he finds Profokiev’s music so emotionally powerful that he gets chills every time he conducts “Romeo and Juliet.” Between the gorgeous music and the cultural references that concertgoers will bring to the performance — including Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” — he expects that many an audience member will be moved to tears when the Suite comes to a close. 

A sense of exhilaration
Maestro Ponti is bringing both exciting music and fresh ideas to the CSO and its audience.   The collaboration with the Visual Arts Center is certain to trigger an outpouring of ideas about ways in which the CSO can partner with organizations in Charlotte County to enhance our cultural community.  That is indeed an exhilarating way to start the new year. 

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